Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 586, 26 January 2023

Israel: Protests against proposed judicial reforms
Mohaimeen Khan

In the news
On 18 January, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Aryeh Deri, a significant member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition is ineligible to hold office as a minister due to tax fraud conviction and suspended sentence. The appointment of Aryeh Deri as health and interior minister, the head of ultra-orthodox Shas party, was deemed by the judges as “extremely unreasonable.” The ruling intensifies a conflict that already existed between the new government and the legal system. According to former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, a planned judicial revamp will damage the state’s legal system and undermine citizens’ rights to be protected from the activities of the government.
 
On 19 January, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara urged Netanyahu to remove Deri from the cabinet, following the Supreme Court’s ruling due to his criminal convictions.
 
On 21 January, for the third consecutive weekend, opponents of the new government’s proposals for significant changes to Israel’s judicial system gathered to protest. It was the largest protest yet, according to police estimates, with 110,000 assembled on Kaplan Street and Habima Square in Tel Aviv. Protests were also staged in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa, Herzliya, and Modi’in against overhauling the judicial system. Demonstrators are opposing Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s plans to curtail the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and solidify political control over nomination of judges. The other concern voiced against the government is that “the government will not be any good for women, LGBTQ, for the impoverished people…and of course Palestinians.” The opposition leader Yair Lapid addressed the crowd and declared, “we won’t give up until we win.”
 
On 22 January, while widening divide over the power of courts, Netanyahu made an announcement that Deri has been removed from office in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision.
 
On 23 January, after having to remove Deri from his position, Netanyahu reiterated his intention to reinstate him in the government at Shas’s weekly Knesset faction meeting.
 
Issues at large
First, clashes between the government and the legal system. The Israeli government passed a law allowing those convicted of a crime but not sentenced to prison to serve as a minister. Yariv Levin proposed several recommendations to the government to overhaul the judicial system and weaken the Supreme Court. His recommendations include allowing legislators to pass laws that the court has effectively declared unconstitutional. The Knesset might effectively overturn Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority. In addition, he suggested that politicians play a larger role in the selection of Supreme Court judges and that ministers hire their legal consultants rather than relying on independent specialists. Levin stated that the public's trust in the judicial system has reached an all-time low, and he intends to restore power from excessively intrusive judges to elected politicians. Netanyahu has waged a campaign against the legal system since being charged with corruption. According to the opposition, the change could either help Netanyahu avoid conviction in his trial or completely end the case. Despite the protests, Netanyahu vowed to carry out the plans for judicial reform. Opponents argue that this could jeopardise Israel’s system of checks and balances and weaken democratic institutions by granting the total government authority.
 
Second, changes proposed by the government. Apart from the judicial changes, the government has proposed other changes which would have a significant impact on Israeli politics and towards Palestinians in Israel. Ben-Gvir ordered the police to take down all Palestinian flags. In Jerusalem, Palestinian flags are already taken down without delay because Israel claims both the eastern and western parts of the city. Ben-Gvir’s actions foreshadow restrictions on Palestinian identity, expression, protests, and free speech. Netanyahu vowed to annex the occupied West Bank to win the support of the Religious Zionism party, one of his coalition partners. Officials from Israel have taken action against the Palestinian Authority, which controls a few areas of the occupied West Bank. The Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reduced the PA’s tax revenues by about $40 million.
 
Third, popular discontent. On the day the new government took office, there was a pro-LGBTQ demonstration as several ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition have strong anti-gay views. The opposition party leaders are urging citizens to take to the streets, previously, there were grassroots, bottom-up movement protests against Netanyahu. The citizens fear the reforms will grant the coalition majority absolute power without regard for minorities, human rights, or the rule of law. The rights of the LGBTQ community, women and asylum seekers are also threatened. The government has faced resistance from many groups, including lawyers, and has generated concerns among business leaders, further dividing the country. The protest movements are fractured. Many oppose what they regard as an unprecedented assault on the legal system, while others see it as an assault on Israeli secular society, with about half of the coalition made up of far-right and ultra-orthodox parties. Others, who seemed to be the minority during the protests, focused their campaigns on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
 
In perspective
The current situation in the state is more divisive than ever. There is disagreement in the state regarding the type of democracy Israel ought to be and how it should deal with the Palestinians. Ministers in the new government have long attacked Jewish identity, religious freedom, Israeli and Palestinian civil society, and LGBTQ communities. There will be severe consequences for Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and for Israeli citizens’ civil freedom, owing in large part to Netanyahu’s internal coalition discussion, which has placed settlers in crucial ministerial positions.
 
The current administration is not different from prior one’s. Instead, it is the culmination of decades of policies that amount to a de facto annexation of the occupied West Bank and policies of Jewish dominance, as well as a far-rightward shift in Israeli politics. What is different now is, the way these beliefs about the underlying principles of how the country functions are now expressed, both in the coalition guidelines of the new administration and by senior ministers. Despite the reforms receiving harsh public criticism, Levin is determined to implement his initial changes and has no intention of compromising.

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